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The ultimate good shepherd

He believes in putting learning into the hands of children. Roger Wagner, author of a bestselling software, is flying over from California to explain his philosophy at BETT 97. He talks to John Davitt.

Experts see complexity but visionaries see the simplicity of their own compelling vision. Roger Wagner, father of HyperStudio, best-selling multimedia software, is something of a visionary. When you talk to him you are left in no doubt that multimedia writing tools will have a large part to play in learning in the year 2000.

He also made it clear that as we already have good authoring tools, there is one essential place to put them - "into the hands of children". He sees the learning in the doing and he describes his philosophy as "power to the people", a suitably rejuvenated anthem for the digital age.

HyperStudio is the ultimate in "good shepherd" software - it supports you at all times with gentle prompts and tips. "Where do you want the button?" "What sound do you want?" Where did he get the inspiration for this approach? "From Print Shop," he says. "Those of you that know Print Shop will know that the pieces come together effortlessly. I wanted to make the Print Shop of multimedia authoring."

With two million HyperStudio users in the US and new versions of the software about to be launched for the three main types of computers in UK schools, it looks like starting to achieve his objective.

A little background helps to understand the man and the motivation. A slim, bespectacled American in his late forties, Roger Wagner worked as a science and maths teacher in California before leaving to start work on HyperStudio which was launched in 1989. "We wanted to make multimedia authoring a reality for students on the humble Apple IIGS," he says. "If we had been in Europe we'd have chosen the Amiga. We were after a reasonably cheap machine which would provide multimedia sound and colour."

Cynics might ask: "Where's the proof that multimedia helps learning?" But Roger Wagner is confident of its educational potential. "The learning takes place in the process, not by viewing the end result. It's this difference in the actual classroom model of education that makes the experience of providing HyperStudio to teachers and students so rewarding." He is clear that students get to own concepts and content by processing it themselves wherever possible. His software is, in one sense, an ideas processor.

Are we finally leaving the age of the word processor? At first, he ponders. "In the world at large it is obvious that companies and individuals are eagerly moving to computer-based forms of information and, more specifically, multimedia story-telling." So what are the implications for the classroom? "The world at large sets the stage for what is happening in classrooms now. As students increasingly use electronic sources of information for their research, and see the pervasion of multimedia around them, they expect to create their own projects in that same manner.

"The evidence that this is happening can be seen in the shift from the number of hours a student uses a word processor during a school term to the now greater amount of use of multimedia authoring."

He says that the demand for multimedia authoring classes for teachers in the US has exploded, whereas lessons in word processing are less popular.

He is also quick to note signs of an emergent literacy among children. "Literacy can be defined as the ability to read and write in the medium of your society. There is ample evidence that society is using CD-Rom, touch-screen kiosks and the Internet as a standard way of providinginformation."

And he is clear that it takes time for students to make these new tools their own: "First of all, there is a comfort level with schoolchildren that makes them completely unhesitant to dive right in and use all the resources a computer can provide, create their projects and tell their own stories. This comfort level, in turn, leads to them just gaining more and more experience, and hence more and more skill, with the electronic medium."

What effect might new literacy have on old literacy then? "There is always some fear with a new technology that old skills may become obsolete, but anyone that looks at CD-Rom or the Internet can quickly see that writing and words are very much still part of the communication process, and the volume of writing transmitted has grown by orders of magnitude . . . People can now add to that written part of their message with the additional support of images, sounds, and movies in addition to conceptual links within a document that are not impeded by 'pages'.

The future looks promising as far as Roger Wagner is concerned: "Technology is changing student activities in the classroom itself, moving from a situation where the teacher stands at the front of the room 'spraying knowledge' at their students (or victims?) to a situation where the students are much more active participants in the topics of their learning, the process of gathering and assembling information, and learning how to share the results with others.

"Parents need to be especially aware of this when they try to understand what computers mean to their children in a classroom, but who are basing their own mental image on what their own classroom experience was 20 years ago. Times and skills have changed, and you have to look beyond just whether test scores have gone up."

Reflecting on this, he maintains that parental involvement is critical. "Parents needs to look within themselves, and ask, 'What kind of skills are my children going to need for the world of their future?'" Finally, he is prepared to follow as well as lead. "At this point, remember that the plug-ins are just being finished as we prepare to release the new versions of HyperStudio that offer Internet publishing as part of the software's capabilities. What our users are enthusiastic about is the fact that they will be able to use the skills they already have with creating multimedia projects, and instantly put that on the Internet as a Web page, or even a portion of a Web page. Just as delightful is the idea that it will be millions of children who are at home with these ideas, leading the way for the rest of us."

* Roger Wagner will be speaking at BETT 97 on Saturday at 10am on The Internet and Multimedia

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